Myth comes from the Greek word mythos meaning “speech” or “story.” Contrary to popular parlance that says a myth is something untrue, false, or fake, mythology is in fact true stories and timeless tales passed down from generation to generation. Myths provide answers and explanations for the big questions of life, such as: where did we come from? What is love? Where do we go once we die? What is the role of nature? And so forth. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. They are truthful, inasmuch as they reflect a belief (even if erroneous or hegemonic).
Early on, Joseph Campbell (1949) established that every society has what are called the Big Myths – stories about love, life, origins, and death. How these myths are articulated varies enormously from culture to culture. In early times, myths focused on immediate needs such as personal safety, finding food, and understanding weather. Today, however, many myths focus on and construct femininity and masculinity. The concept of beauty, for example, has always existed and varies greatly between cultures. In industrialized countries such as the US the ideal female beauty is a tall, thin, big-busted woman. In others, she is plump and short. It is the nature of human beings to believe in the stories we hear and see, regardless of whether they are factually provable or not. The real meanings behind myths are timeless, adaptable, and resilient.
All societies have deep and ancient roots. Psychologist Carl Jung (1968) referred to a kind of groupthink that develops what he called the collective unconscious. This is the psychological container within each person’s head in which ideas about morality, authority, and religiosity reside. It contains ideas that we somehow seem naturally to hold but in fact have learned as we grew up. While the collective unconscious is below conscious-level thinking, it holds a collection of cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling), and behavioral (doing) characteristics that are passed down to all members of a society, generation after generation. Mythologies are not, however, found only in the past because myths are essentially about the meanings people make – a key concept in communication studies. Cultures form around the meanings people construct, which occur within a system of other meanings from which ideology emerges. Meanings, for example for a word, change over time. Thus, the articulation of a myth, perhaps one about how a person finds true love, changes to keep current with the times.
A typical myth involves the hero’s journey. This is a tale, often told from the perspective of the hero, in which a young (usually) man must go out into the world and achieve, rescue, or locate something which he brings back to his community. On this journey, he experiences usually three challenges, accomplishes them, and brings back the boon. It is not only a tale of individual accomplishment but a timeless story that energizes cultures today through its familiarity and its sense of good prevailing over evil. Movies such as Star Wars, police and detective shows, and American Westerns all use this traditional storytelling format, which simultaneously reveals and conceals its ideological foundation.
For a myth to remain relevant, credible, viable, and believable, it must reflect people’s present-day realities. While the underpinnings of a myth remain true throughout time, popular culture portrayals help to define, reproduce, and distribute the stories. Once upon a time we got our stories by sitting around campfires, within sweat lodges, or in community situations, whereas today, the primary storytellers for most of the news and social instruction, in industrialized nations, come from the mass media.
Social changes such as the women’s and civil rights movements as well as technological advancements in the mass media affect a culture’s telling, remembering, and passing on of its most important tales.
A mythic perspective on popular communication is interdisciplinary, incorporating religious studies, linguistics, sociology, psychology, semiotics, literary and narrative theories, and psychoanalysis. Methodologies that facilitate this kind of inquiry include hermeneutics, phenomenology, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and the history of the imaginary, as well as the use of conceptual tools from aesthetics and art. Mass culture has a mythological dimension, which has been investigated from the perspectives of narrative theory and mythic analyses in films, television programs, sports, advertising, and other forms of communication.
French semiologist Roland Barthes regarded myths as not only classical fables about gods, goddesses, and heroes. To him, myths reflect the dominant ideologies of our times and take on the appearance of naturalness, everyday-ness. Furthermore, myths function as metaphors that help us comprehend our experiences not only in our own culture but also in comparison to those in the world around us. Myths make socially constructed laws, rules, regulations, social relationships, sexual relationships, beliefs, and values seem normal and natural – simply how things are and have forever been. This is accomplished through language, narrative structures, images, and sounds.
Narrative patterns such as those found in the Western film genre articulate a form of social order, present a classic plot of good versus evil, and provide a mechanism through which social tensions can be released. As a genre, the Western has several clear themes and elements that make it quickly identifiable: it takes place in the American West and has cowboys, Indians, horses, and gunfights. Newspaper stories also perform this way by framing reality, by telling readers what is important to know in ways that support dominant, mainstream beliefs of a society. Myths inform our everyday lives and play a powerful role in shaping individual and collective identities.
- Asa Berger, A. (2004). Ads, fads, and consumer culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Barthes, R. (1970). Mythologies. Paris: Éditions du Seuil. (Original work published 1957).
- Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: Pantheon.
- Eliade, M. (1959). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harper and Row.
- Jung, C. (1968). Man and his symbols. New York: Dell.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1979). Myth and meaning. New York: Schocken.
- Malinowski, B. (1992). Malinowski and the work of myth (ed. I. Strenski). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.